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Tamar – A righteousness that looks like sin

For the next five Sundays I’m going to be preaching on the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew’s gospel. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Could she get any more boring? Five weeks on the begats and begottens? I got out of bed for this?!” I know that’s what you’re thinking, because that’s for sure what I’d be thinking!

And why even bother? The genealogy traces the line down to Joseph, the husband of Mary, and according to Scripture, and our faith, Joseph was not the father of Jesus, God was. That’s a valid point. Ancient Hebrew society was patriarchal, that is male dominated, as well as patrilineal, meaning they traced their bloodline through the fathers. But these were Mary’s ancestors too, her fathers, her blood, and she passed that on to Jesus. So there is value in studying the generations of the tribe Jesus was born into.

But I won’t be talking about the genealogy per se, but the five women who are mentioned in it. Why? What’s so important about those five women? They’re not supposed to be there! As I mentioned, Hebrew society was patrilineal, so the presence of any women’s names is astonishing, unless they were the matriarchs. For instance, Abraham had three wives, Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah, all of whom bore him sons, but only one was to be the great forefather of the nation of Israel, and that was Isaac, whose mother was Sarah. So, the genealogy of Abraham would mention Abraham’s wives but only to point out which one was the matriarch – Sarah – and which son was all important.

So are the women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus matriarchs – like Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel? Not exactly, no.

Were these women saints, women of great virtue? I know a little bit about women saints. I wrote a book about women saints. And I’m here to tell you, these women ain’t saints. Not by any definition I know. And maybe we need a new definition of “saint.” That could be. But these women’s names are associated with some of the most scandalous of sins – incest, prostitution, fornication, adultery, and accessory to murder. And this is the genealogy of Jesus?! That’s not a genealogy, that’s a soap opera!

And it isn’t easy to preach on this kind of stuff. At least, not for me. Part of me is a woman of very delicate sensibilities, although I know that comes as a surprise to some of you. But the other part, as you well know, is a furious feminist. And when the two come together in conflict over something, like this, Furious Feminist wins every time. I have to know what’s going on here. I have to know why these women were included. Because every time the genealogy of Christ was read out in the early churches, the people would have heard these women’s names, instantly remembered their stories…and been horrified! Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary of Nazareth – scandal after scandal after scandal after scandal after scandal! By the end of the genealogy, those poor church people would have been apoplectic! These women have no business in the lineage of the most holy Son of God. So what are they doing there? Short answer – nobody knows.

But I have a theory. And it’s not just my theory. Other people think the same way.

I believe it’s no accident that these women are mentioned in Christ’s lineage. The gospel writer is sending us a specific message, a coded message, about these women’s relationship to Christ, and that’s what we’re going to decipher in the next few weeks.

Let’s begin with Tamar the Trickster.

The first woman’s name to appear in the line of Jesus is Tamar, and her story is bound up with that of Judah who was one of the sons of the great patriarch Jacob. It was Judah who had the bright idea of selling his brother Joseph as a slave to the Midianites, so jealous was he and his brothers of Joseph’s preferential place in the affections of their father Jacob, and so irked was he by Joseph’s dreams of dominance over his brothers.

In the meantime though, while all that other stuff was going on, Judah got married to a nice Canaanite girl, and had three sons of his own, the eldest of which he married off to Tamar. But this son, Er, did something to displease God, and God killed him. That’s what the Scripture says – God killed him. My first question is – what did he do? Because I’d really like to avoid that sin if I could! But Scripture doesn’t say. My second question is – did God kill him? The Scripture writer certainly thought so. Personally, I think he died alright, but God zapping him out of existence because he did something wrong? Is that the way God acts? I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

In any event, Judah marries Tamar off to his second son, but this son also does something that displeases God and God kills him too. And by now Judah is thinking, “Oy! Two sons down and only one son to go.”

In ancient Hebrew theology, there was no concept of heaven as a place where you went after you died. So with no idea of resurrection or eternal life after death, children became all important – they were your legacy; they were your immortality. So you can understand Judah’s reluctance to marry off his last son, Shelah, to Tamar, who appears to be under some sort of curse that leaves her alive but kills off all her husbands. In fact, Judah had no intention of risking his only son, so he tells Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son grows up. Then you can marry him.” And that’s what she did.

When Tamar returns to her father’s house, she literally enters a No Man’s Land. The most significant duty of a father towards his daughter in those days was to arrange a good marriage for her, and Tamar’s father did that. She should have her own home now, and a husband, and most importantly, children. But she’s back, alone, dependant on her father’s compassion, and possibly under a curse. Lovely! On top of all that, was the Hebrew custom (law) that as long as a close relative of the deceased husband still lived, in this case a younger brother, Tamar could not marry outside the family. She was stuck. She had to wait until her father-in-law arranged the marriage to his youngest son, which, as I said, was something he had no intention of doing.

So she waited, an outcast in a home here she didn’t belong and was not wanted, unable to fulfill what was considered a woman’s purpose in life – to have children.

This went on for quite a while, until it finally sank in that Judah was never going to give his last son to her as husband. So she decided to take matters into her own hands. She played a trick on her father-in-law – a rather good one. And by good, I mean bad…very bad.

Someone told her Judah was in Timnah for the annual shearing of the sheep, so she takes off her widow’s attire, dresses in her regular clothes, drops a veil over her face and sits down at the side of the road. Ole Judah comes along and thinks she’s a prostitute. And they negotiate a contract in which he will pay her with one of the goats from his flock. But that’s not good enough for Tamar – she wants a pledge from Judah, some collateral, until he made good on the payment. He says, “OK, what do you want?” And she says, “Give me your signet, your cord, and your staff.” Now these things were individual to each man. They were like his identity card. There was no mistaking who was the owner.

She takes the signet, the cord, and the staff, they do the deed, and Tamar goes home dressed as a widow once more.

Later on, Judah tells his friend Hirah, “I am a man of my word. Go take one of the goats to the prostitute,” but when Hirah asks after the prostitute who sat at the side of the road, the people tell him, “There was never a prostitute at the side of the road. We don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He returns and tells this to Judah who says, “Aw, let her keep the stuff. If we keep looking for her, we’ll end up a laughing stock.”

OK then. Everything’s back to normal, right? Well, not quite.

Tamar is pregnant. Well of course she’s pregnant! There wouldn’t be any story if she wasn’t pregnant! And the news gets back to Judah – “Your daughter-in-law Tamar, is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant.” Judah’s reaction is swift and chilling – “Bring her out and burn her to death.” No hesitation. No discussion. No inquiry as to whether the charges are true, what the facts are, or who the father might be. He dispatches his servants to carry out the grizzly task, and again he must have thought that was the end of the story.

But Tamar has a trump card – she gets one of the servants who have arrived to burn her, to take Judah’s signet, cord and staff back to her father-in-law with the message, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these.” And I love how your pew bible puts it – “See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are.”

Meanwhile, in my mind’s eye, I can see Judah sitting in his kitchen with his friend Hirah, just rejoicing! “Hirah, I’m finally rid of that woman! There’ll be no marriage now. I get to keep my son and marry him off to a normal woman who won’t kill him. There’ll be no guilt since it’s not my fault she went out and got herself pregnant. (!) This couldn’t have worked out any better!” And just then the servant comes in and Judah says, “Hey! My stuff! Where’d you find it?”

And the servant replies, “Funny, funny story about that. Tamar had it.”

“Tamar had it?”

“Um hm.”

“Tamar who?”

“Oh you know, Tamar, your daughter-in-law, who we were just getting ready to burn alive. And by the way, do you still want us to go through with that, because we’re all set up, and it would be a shame to waste the wood.”

And I can see his friend Hirah, piping up: “Better not there, Judah. Because if they burn her, they’ll have to burn you too…daddy.”

Then Judah says something extraordinary – “Tamar is more righteous than I.”

Excuse me? How is Tamar more righteous than anyone? She slept with her father-in-law, for crying out loud! And she’s righteous? This is a righteousness that looks like sin…and who does that remind you of? What holy man would break religious laws every time he turned around, causing all kinds of scandal and outrage, associating with the dregs of society – sinners, outcasts, tax collectors, and yes, prostitutes? I’ve said it before, and I know it offends people, but I’m going to say it again – I believe if Jesus were to come into our world today, we wouldn’t find him in a church or temple or synagogue. No no, we would be far more likely to find him in a bar, or, God forgive me, a strip club. Oh Lord, Penny-Anne, why would Jesus go into a place like that? Because that’s where his friends would be! Jesus would be a friend to the dancers, and a friend to the patrons, and an absolute scandal to everyone else, particularly church people…like us. Wouldn’t he? The revulsion we’re feeling at the idea of Jesus going into a strip club is the very same revulsion the Pharisees felt watching him hang around with sinners and hookers. He must have been such a worry to his mother! This is what we find so hard to accept – the company Jesus kept, the people he preferred. We would be as scandalized by Jesus today as they were 2000 years ago – him and his righteousness that looks like sin.

This is the righteousness of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and descendant of Tamar, the Trickster, Tamar, the Righteous.

Let’s bow in prayer…

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